Interview with former NHL coach Andy Murray

They say nice guys finish last. Well, they at least get screwed over.

Tonight the Kings take on the Blues, an opponent that usually doesn’t get the juices flowing for most fans in LA. There isn’t any sort of a rivalry between the two teams.

Although, a decade ago there was plenty of hate when the Blues swept the Kings in the opening round of the playoffs (in game 3 the Kings were up 3-0, LA’s Sean O’Donnell ‘politely introduced himself’ to Geoff Courtnall – after he took a run at the Kings goalie – resulting in a five minute powerplay for the Blues…St Louis rallied back and won the game).

For most, the memories have faded since then and this game is no different now than Columbus or Nashville coming to town.

However, prior to last Saturday, there was another reason to care. A beloved former Kings coach was at the helm and it was always great to see him back, even as a visitor.

Andy Murray went from being a virtual unknown when he was first hired by the Kings to their most successful coach in history. After three trips to the playoffs and with the team above .500, despite being riddled with injuries, he was let go with just a handful of games remaining in the 2005-06 season.

It may have been de ja vu all over again last Saturday morning. Murray led the Blues to a remarkable second half run last season, putting the team in the playoffs for the first time in five years. His team was riddled with injuries this season, played poorly at home and he was promptly welcomed into 2010 by getting his walking papers from the Blues.

Prior to his being let go I had a chance to speak with the always approachable Murray as part of my game preview for today. Obviously, some of it is out of context now, but the answers and insight were still worth sharing. We talked about his career, the Blues, family and a team he truly cares about – the Kings.

MM:  Your first year as the head coach of Hershey in the AHL you guys won the Calder Cup and then you were promoted to the Flyers as an assistant. Did you have to switch your mindset a little with the move?

AM:  When Bob Clark (GM of the Flyers) asked me to help out Paul Holmgren (head coach) I was happy to do so, but I would say my mindset hasn’t really changed from one league to another. I’ve been coaching practically my whole life. I was even starting to coach back when I was still playing. My dad taught me that people are your most important assets in business or when managing a team, so I’ve always tried to approach things the same way, regardless of where or what level I’m coaching.

In 1992 you were an assistant with the North Stars when they went to the Stanley Cup finals…

Bob Clark got me that job too. He was fired in Philly and when he landed in Minnesota he called and asked me to join him.

Before the finals, did you feel you guys needed to alter your approach at all or was it important to just continue doing the things that got you there?

Well, at that point the guys are tired. They’re getting banged up every night, but running on lots of adrenaline. Not a lot needs to be said at that point. It’s funny. You get labeled in life, it doesn’t matter if you’re a coach or a player. At the time people were saying I like to have a lot of meetings, even if I didn’t have them. But, I remember trying to keep the message simple.

Eventually you ended up taking some time away from the NHL. In 1996-98 you coached Team Canada and then eventually ended up at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a prep school…

The real reason I took the job at St. Mary’s was when I was the coach for Team Canada – I mean it’s a great gig, you’re coaching one of the best programs in the world – but we didn’t have any home games. Our home base was in Calgary. We’d have practice there and maybe some hockey clinics, but we traveled all over the world to play our games. Brady was playing at St. Mary’s and when the coach left there was an opening. It was a great opportunity for me to spend more time with my family.

Then in ’99 you were hired by the Kings…

When I got the job in LA I had never met Dave Taylor before. I knew Al Murray and I knew Rob Blake from coaching him with Team Canada. I had one interview with the Kings and when they asked me back I figured they must have liked me. When we went out to dinner and they offered the job I think I surprised them when I said I needed to think about it. But, I wasn’t expecting them to offer me the job so soon and wanted to talk to my family and think about the kids back home that I had made a commitment to when I became their coach.

You mentioned taking the Shattuck job to spend more time with family. Why take the job with the Kings? Was it to get back to the NHL, was it the opportunity to be a head coach?

For sure. There are only 30 NHL head coaching positions. To be considered for one means that you have done some good things leading up to it. That’s why I tell young coaches “Don’t think so much about the future. Coach the team you have. If you do that well, the future opportunities will come.” To answer your question though, there were other reasons. I always admired Dave Taylor as a player and I wanted to work with him. I also enjoyed coaching Rob Blake with Canada, so that appealed to me. The best part of being a coach is the day they ask you. It’s a validation of all you’ve done up until that point.

Your first three seasons in LA your teams had 90+ points and made the playoffs all three years. Then the team lost to Colorado in ’02. The next season the Kings had 78 points. What happened?

Well…I don’t like to use injuries as an excuse. However, we set a record at one point for the most man games lost over a multi year period. We lost Allison, Deadmarsh, Palffy was out for an extended period – plus other guys. We weren’t dealing with small injuries either. We had guys out with broken bones and concussions. That would be like Anaheim losing Getzlaf and Perry this season. It would crush them. Or the Kings losing Kopitar. It would hurt. Who knows where we would have been without a guy like Derek Armstrong. I think people forget, he basically became our number one center. It was a tough road to hoe there. We were struggling to find consistency. Looks like the Kings have that solved this year. But, that was a problem in LA for a number of years.

You left LA with more wins than any other coach in Kings history. Is that your legacy here or would you like to be remembered for something else?

You know what means the most to me? Going to the rink and having guys come up to me and still want to shake my hand. The way I’m treated when I return. Players, front office people and the fans, they all treat me so well. I love the handshakes and the hellos. The Kings are a great team finally. They are so fun to watch and I truly enjoy the people in LA. I’m glad they still welcome me.

In the Spring of 2006 you were fired with just a few games left in the season. Looking back on it, do you think it was a desperation move by a GM trying to save his own job?

I remember us being 8 games over .500 when I was fired. But we had been playing poorly for awhile and just came off a terrible game in Colorado. It was about 4pm and Dave Taylor called me into his office. I knew something was up. The only time he called me to his office at a time like that was if we were sending somebody down to Manchester. He’d call me in and we’d tell the player together. I knew that wasn’t the case here so I went over and stuck my head in his office and said “Are you sending me down to Manchester?” and he was white in the face. I knew what was coming. I thanked him for what he had done for me, how he helped me and for the opportunity he gave me.

I’m not mad though. I had a great time in LA. I liked working for Mr Anschutz, Tim Leiweke and the whole team. I loved everything about being the Kings coach. I just wish we could have stayed healthy. It also would have been nice to still be there when guys like Brown and Frolov developed into the players they are today. Wow, they’re something special. The only thing that bothers me is some of the stuff that people wrote that wasn’t true – about my supposed battles with certain players and stuff like that. Even with Sean Avery. Sure, he’s a real character. But he’s become a pretty darn good hockey player for the Rangers.

For me, it’s all about the relationships. I feel like now I can go back there when I retire and sit and watch the Kings games and enjoy it.

As far as the decision to let me go, sure I was disappointed. But, those things happen in our business and you just have to move on. I don’t blame Dave. I’m a big Dave Taylor fan. Still am right now.

Let’s move on to family. Your son Brady was drafted by the Kings and then finally made his debut in the NHL when the team played a series over in London back in ’07. Was that a bittersweet moment for you since you couldn’t be there at the game?

First off, I had no idea we were drafting him. It’s a common misconception that I influenced that happening. Truth is I didn’t know. As a coach you really don’t get to see the draft book. Sure, you go to the draft – but that’s basically just to shake hands or if there is a trade being proposed they’ll consult you. But, most coaches know nothing about the draft – unless you’re a coach and GM. You’re not part of the decisions. I didn’t even know where we had him ranked. In fact, I had been told by somebody in the Nashville organization that the Preds were looking to draft him around the third round. I guess somebody they had ranked higher fell to them in the second or third and then when it came around to us picking Al Murray walked around to the end of the table and said ‘We’re going to take Brady.’ I had no idea. They told me just minutes before it was announced.

Anyway, it was great that he finally made the team in ’07. He had a good summer camp. Nelson Emerson was keeping me informed. He was just living the dream there.

Then, when the Kings came home, one of their first games was against us (the Blues). So, to see him playing for the Kings at Staples Center – a building he was skating around in as a kid when it was first being built – it was special.

A couple games later he scored his first NHL goal, only to be sent down the next day. So, that was an exciting time, we just wished he could have stayed up a little longer.

He’s playing in Europe right now, right?

Yes. He’s playing as a non-import over there since I was there for eight years. He’s making real good money and he led the league is scoring last year. The Kings qualified him. However, LA just has so many good young players right now you just never know if there’s room for him. Who knows. In another year or two maybe he’ll be back to give it another crack.

And your other son, Jordy, he’s a left wing is in his second season at the University of Wisconsin. How’s he enjoying himself?

He really likes it there. He was a little down in December after separating his shoulder. Right after it happened he was a little sour about being out. But, he’ll be fine.

I just watched a tape of my daughter Sarah too, she is playing at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, one of the best women’s hockey programs every year. She’s a senior and she’s getting ready to go play in a real good women’s pro league over in Switzerland. In fact, she’s going to sign with a team that’s in the same city as Brady, so that will be pretty exciting.

(Just a reminder before the next section, he was still coaching the Blues at the time…)

Last year St Louis finished #6 in the West after being near the bottom of the standings at the All-Star break. As a coach you’re constantly having to build guys up and keep them motivated. Confidence is important. How did you keep yourself motivated during that time period…to not start doubting your ability to coach?

Again, a big part of it came down to injuries. We lost Brewer, Kariya, MacDonald, TJ Oshie, guys like that in the first half of the season. So we had lost a lot of close games, but we played our butts off. I didn’t talk to the team about the standings or points. I just tried to keep everybody focused on he next game. This season people here (in St Louis) got ahead of themselves and started talking Stanley Cup and stuff. That’s too much pressure for most young players. Look at Kopitar, it took him three years to figure things out. Young guys like Doughty are definitely the exception.

Anyway, we just tried to think about the next game. If anybody had told our players in January how many games they would need to win in the second half to make the playoffs, it would have been overwhelming. We didn’t even talk that way. We just talked about the next game on our schedule. I know that sounds very much like a coaches cliche. But, guys believed in that. We were just trying to win the next game. Its the same thing we’re doing right now. It’s a tight league, every point is so valuable. You have to win the next game though. If you don’t win enough ‘next games’, you wont have any more to play at the end of the regular season.

When you were coaching in LA you often talked about the most important shift in a game being the one right after a goal is scored. When the Blues visited Staples back in early December the Kings scored, then you guys came right back and scored on the next shift…

That’s why I harp on it, it’s so important. A few weeks before that we had three of our young guys on the ice and a goal was scored against them. As soon as it happened all three of the young guys skated to the bench. Jackman and a couple other guys hopped on and lined up for the face off. Their thought was they got scored on, so I must have wanted them off. I made them get back out there. I made a point right then saying ‘If I want to change it, I’ll change it.’

I never want to see a player change himself. Unless it was a lazy goal or something, when a goal is scored on you I want you to go right back out to center ice and line-up. Show our team and show the opponents you’re ready to battle.

When that goal was scored by the Kings, all five our guys stayed out. I was impressed by that. Obviously, they got a goal on that next shift. But, that’s just a bonus. You want to have a strong shift after a goal is scored. You want to take the game back and we do talk about that. I was very proud of our guys at that moment.

How about some word association Andy?

Sure!

Here we go, we’ll start with some guys you coached early in your career and move forward from there…

Dallas Drake – tough

Tie Domi – irritator

Nelson Emerson – great guy

Brent Thompson – passionate

Jay Wells – competitor

Ron Hextall – ultimate competitor

Rick Tocchet – ultra, ultra competitor (he laughs)…how about ‘total package’

Mike Modano – quality guy, quality player

Rob Blake – great person

Luc Robitaille – one of the nicest guys in the game

Frolov – happy guy…I love being around him, always makes me smile

Ziggy Palffy – I still talk to Ziggy quite a bit – for him I’ll say ‘dynamic player’

Dustin Brown – wish we had him on our team

Sean Avery – underrated as a player

Ian Laperriere – love the guy

Jeremy Roenick – was fun to coach

Mattias Norstrom – warrior (then he laughed and said or ‘a Canadian Swede’)

Keith Tkachuck – classy guy, real leader on our team

* * * * * *

When we wrapped things up I thanked him and said I’d see him today. Only I won’t.

A week ago he was fired by the Blues. Their home record – worst in the league – was partly to blame. Overall, Blues management felt he wasn’t getting through to the team anymore and it was time for a change. Such is the life of a head coach. Hired to be fired.

In one of his final moves, on the way out the door, Murray left a a hand written note for new Blues coach Davis Payne. He wished him well.

And now it’s official…Andy Murray might just be the nicest guy – not only in hockey, but anywhere, ever.

A class act.

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